Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Breakthrough Leadership for the World Bank

NEW YORK – Last month, I called for the World Bank to be led by a global development leader rather than a banker or political insider. “The Bank needs an accomplished professional who is ready to tackle the great challenges of sustainable development from day one,” I wrote. Now that US President Barack Obama has nominated Jim Kim for the post, the world will get just that: a superb development leader.

Obama has shown real leadership with this appointment. He has put development at the forefront, saying explicitly, “It’s time for a development professional to lead the world's largest development agency.”

Kim’s appointment is a breakthrough for the World Bank, which I hope will extend to other global institutions as well. Until now, the United States had been given a kind of carte blanche to nominate anyone it wanted to the World Bank presidency. That is how the Bank ended up with several inappropriate leaders, including several bankers and political insiders who lacked the knowledge and interest to lead the fight against poverty.

In order to break this tradition, and to underscore the critical importance of putting a development leader in charge of the Bank, I entered the campaign myself, and I was deeply honored by the public support that I received from a dozen countries, and by the private support of many more. Kim’s nomination was a win for all, and I was delighted to withdraw my candidacy to back him.

Kim is one of the world’s great leaders in public health. He has worked with another great public-health leader, Paul Farmer, to pioneer the extension of treatment for AIDS, tuberculosis, and other diseases to the world’s poorest people. More recently, he has been President of Dartmouth College, a leading American university. He therefore combines professional expertise, global experience, and considerable management know-how – all perfect credentials for the World Bank presidency.

I have worked closely with Kim over the years. He is a visionary, seeing the possibility of providing care where none is yet available. He is bold, ready to take on great challenges. And he is utterly systematic in his thinking, designing new protocols and delivery systems for low-income communities. He led the effort by the World Health Organization to scale up AIDS treatment for people in low-income countries, and he did an exemplary job.

The US appointment is not the end of the story. The World Bank’s 25 Executive Directors, representing 187 member countries, must now confirm the choice from among three nominees. He faces a challenge from Nigeria’s esteemed finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Colombia’s former finance minister, José Antonio Ocampo. Yet Kim is the overwhelming favorite to get the position, especially given his stellar global record of accomplishment.

The past month has brought other reminders of why the Bank counts so much, and why I emphasized the urgent need to professionalize its leadership. Tragically, the government of Mali was overthrown in a military coup. Ironically, an election was scheduled for this spring, so the country was to have a new government soon.

I link the coup and the World Bank for the following reason: Mali is yet another example of a country where extreme poverty, hunger, disease, drought, and famine cause political instability and violence.

I know the country well. Indeed, the Earth Institute (which I direct) has a large office in Mali. Several years ago, Mali’s government appealed to me for help to fight the country’s worsening poverty. I tried to rally global support for Mali, but the Bank and others barely responded. They did not see the dangers that were so evident to all of us working in villages around the country.

Of course, poverty is not the only cause of Mali’s instability. Ethnic divisions, the extensive market in weapons, spillovers from Libya’s violence, and other factors have played a large role. But, around the world, poverty is the basic condition that accelerates and intensifies violence.

This year’s drought made a bad situation in Mali much worse. I have been saying and writing for years that the dryland regions stretching West to East – from Senegal to Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – are a growing tinder box, where climate change, drought, hunger, and population growth are creating ever greater instability.

That instability erupts into war with terrifying frequency. As a development specialist working on the ground in the drylands, I know that no military solution can stabilize this vast region as long as people remain hungry, face famines, lack water, and are without livelihoods and hope. Sustainable development is the only path to sustainable peace.

The US government is finally waking up to this new and frightening reality. An assessment by America’s intelligence agencies, released in February, argues that, “during the next 10 years, water problems will contribute to instability in states important to US national security interests.” Of course, not only US security is at stake; so are global security and the survival and well-being of vast numbers of people. And there is no need to wait for the coming 10 years: the grim reality predicted in the report is already with us.

All of this underscores the importance of the World Bank and Kim’s role at the helm. The Bank can be where the world convenes to address the dire, yet solvable, problems of sustainable development, bringing together governments, scientists, scholars, civil-society organizations, and the public to advance that great cause. This is a global imperative, and we can all contribute to fulfilling it by ensuring that the World Bank is an institution truly for the world, led with expertise and integrity. Kim’s nomination is a tremendous step toward that goal.

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    1. CommentedHarry Blutstein

      Regardless of whether or not Kim is a good choice, his accession reflects everything wrong with the way the World Bank is run. The same goes for the IMF.

      Since day one, the head of the World Bank has been the sinecure of the US. At its first meeting in Savannah the US asserted its authority over the World Bank and IMF, such that Keynes said at the time preferred “the children to fall into an eternal slumber never to waken or be heard again in the courts and markets of mankind". There is more on this early history at

    2. Portrait of Dylan Matthews

      CommentedDylan Matthews

      Now that Kim has officially been selected, this debate is to some degree no longer relevant, but I do worry about what Kim's record as president of Dartmouth indicates about his concern for women's right issues. As Felix Salmon notes here, Dartmouth's administration has long been too accommodating of a fraternity culture that victimizes women, and Kim's excuse of being an "anthropologist" who didn't want to interfere with that culture is remarkably weak:

    3. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      There is a public debate brewing in the background for quite some time now, on the ‘goodness’ of finance, its role in facilitating development with a human face. There is no magic wand that finance could accomplish with an equitable and fair distribution, what otherwise could be achieved without its central role in credit creation or risk mitigation. While it is wrong to assume that the gains from it should be for the majority, it is also wrong to infer that losses cannot be socialized. The model we are talking here must look at development needs of the vast majority of poor under the poverty line and it is a shame that we have taken decades to understand that in their ‘upliftment’ lie the key to the lack in demand problem of the world. The appointment of Kim only becomes the right step when policies are directed towards this understanding.

      Procyon Mukherjee

    4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I agree with the author that we have to celebrate any new steps, initiatives that are moving towards a global direction, global vision.
      We learn each day from respected scientific publications how interconnected and interdependent we are.
      The fact is that not only those in extreme poverty or need, but even the most affluent countries, regions can only hope for security and sustainable future if we create more new and functional supra-national systems and structures, that are truly work based on the benefit of the whole system instead of the narrow individual and national interest as it has been happening so far.
      The worsening and unsolvable global crisis starts to give the motivation from a negative direction for even the most stubborn leaders who start considering global leadership above their "legacy" and reelection hopes, or even if selfishly at least they now see their legacy on a global platform.
      On the other hand by studying the already available transparent and factual information about our present evolving reality we could find the positive motivation as well, always moving a step ahead of the crisis and the future blows as a united human network has infinitely greater potential compared to the narrow minded, subjective, self calculating efforts we are making today.